Archives for posts with tag: squash

The deadly night shades (tomatoes, bell peppers, and eggplant), the cucurbits (squash and cucumbers), and the legumes (string beans) continue to toil away in the mid-summer sun, slowly extending their stems, unfurling new leaves, presenting blossoms to eager pollinators, and fattening their fruits. Their harvest times remain weeks away.

Meanwhile, the members of three families of root vegetables—the crucifer (turnips and radishes), the goosefoot (beets), and the umbel (carrots)—bide their time until we decide to pluck them from the soil. They have matured for the most part and only slowly enlarge with each day’s dose of sunshine and water. We could harvest them all but they are safer in the ground than in the refrigerator, at least in the short-term.

In fact, in the ground is where these root vegetables like to be. Their purpose is to store energy over the winter so that the plants can flower and go to seed in their second spring. The roots will keep a long time and that is why many people store them for winter consumption. Doing so requires that they be kept dry and out of the sunlight, which, somewhat ironically, can harm them as well. Being buried in boxes of sand or soil and placed in the basement protects them until they are needed in the kitchen.

We don’t grow enough of them to feed us over the winter—hence, we do not put them in the cellar—but we do grow more than we can eat at one time or even at the rate that they mature. The icebox is one alternative but it is too cold and too humid, conditions that would foster mold or rot. Therefore, we keep the root vegetables on figurative ice.

We have to be careful, though. If kept too long in the soil, they can become woody or tough and will lose flavor. And if forgotten or neglected, they might decay or provide a feast for insects.

We won’t let that happen. When we are ready to eat them, we’ll them pull up, wash them off, and separate their greens. The roots we will roast and the greens we’ll sauté. And if we don’t eat them all, we will share them with others, which is perhaps the best approach to the abundance.

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This year, I am determined not to lose the battle against powdery mildew.

It’s probably a futile goal—quixotic, really—because we have suffered it every year that we’ve kept the vegetable garden, starting in 2011. Spores of Erysiphe cichoracearum, the fungus responsible for powdery mildew in cucurbits, are present, brought here from elsewhere by the wind (most likely) or by spontaneous manifestation (not likely but it is easy to understand why people once believed in it).

Sadly, the fungus is well-suited to survival and produces resting spores called chasmothecia (all of this is according to the folks at UC Davis; see “UC IPM Online”) that can—and do—resist the freezing weather that kills off weaker organism over winter. The only way to eradicate it is with fungicide, the most effective of which I have no interest in using.

No, eradication is not the answer; management is. And the key to management of powdery mildew is anticipation and early detection. It will appear—that’s inevitable—so I must be ready for it. And that means starting to spray the leaves of the cucurbits, which in our garden are the cucumbers and squash, with a preventative solution and starting to spray them now.

Last year, I found a good recipe on Late Bloomer’s website (see “Late Bloomer – National Heirloom Expo 2013 – Episode 36”; there is other interesting stuff there) and I mixed up a batch today. It’s a simple concoction of water, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and dish detergent (which I suspect is there to help the solution adhere to the plant).

I made a loop through the garden this afternoon, spraying each cucumber and squash leaf as I passed. My intuition tells me that spraying while the garden is in direct sunlight is preferable because the sun will evaporate the water, leaving the NaHCO3 and H2O2 (I have no idea what is the chemical formula for dish detergent but it’s probably too long to fit) behind to coat the leaves and inhibit fungal growth.

For the remainder of the season, especially in the fall when the humidity of summer remains but the nights are cooler, I will have to re-spray on a weekly (or so) basis.

Maybe I can’t win the battle but perhaps if I am diligent, I (and the cucurbits) won’t be routed.

I know I’ve mentioned it many times before but I’m not going to let that stop me: Saying yes to one thing means saying no to others. I repeat it so often because it is still true.

Sometimes, the “no” is explicit—someone asks for something and the request cannot be granted—but it need not be. More often, the time and energy available are consumed by the committed tasks and at the end of the day, there are no resources left for the things not committed to. Stuff just does not happen.

It isn’t hard to guess where I’m going with this. I recently said yes to some work for my former partners. A large chunk of my time is now committed to this worthwhile—and quite enjoyable—project and, as a result, I have less time for other things, most notably this blog. That is why my posts have been few and far between lately.

Now, this is not to say that my blogging is less worthwhile or less enjoyable than the other work. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No, blogging has simply become less urgent; it remains very important to me. I admit to feeling a little discomfort with this—the puritanical worker in me wants to do everything, to get it done, now!—but I know I will catch up. Anyway, it is summer, a time when the pace is slower and more relaxed. For all I know, my readers are on vacation or tending their own gardens.

Nor does my not writing about the garden mean that nothing is happening there. To the contrary, the planters are bursting with growth, especially the east planter with its bounty of root vegetables (most especially, the turnips) and snap peas, while the cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, and bell peppers are preparing to carry out their own surge.

The most comforting aspect of the garden is that at this time of year, it practically takes care of itself. It basks in the sun by day, receives gentle watering from the timed hoses or occasional thunderstorm in the evening, and, at intervals, enjoys a little love from Rachel and me. Because in addition to everything else we are doing, we are both still chanting “yes!” to the garden.

I’m tempted to say that we are much farther behind in the growing season this year than we were at this point in the last. The weather has been substantially cooler this spring, especially at night. Everybody—humans and plants, alike—seems to be moving in slow motion. The motor is running but the engine is cold.

However, looking back at photos and notes from mid-May, 2013, I find that we are not as far back as it feels. We have sowed the seeds for everything that we planned to start indoors and almost all have germinated and sprouted. The only exception is the Yellow Belle peppers with which we truly got a late start (after three failures of the Orange Sun seeds) and which are typically slow to germinate.

Also, we have already advanced most of the seedlings from their seed trays to larger plastic pots. Again, an exception is the Yellow Belle peppers but so are the pattypan squash and Early Fortune cucumbers. All of these were late additions to the garden lineup—and not because of the weather. Presumably, the failure of last year’s seeds to germinate was independent of what was going on outside.

More significantly, perhaps, the transplanted seedlings are taller and fuller than their 2013 counterparts. This is probably because despite the colder weather this year, we started the indoor planting earlier. We sowed seeds for herbs in January (even if only a few germinated) and again in early March. At about the same time, we seeded eggplant and peppers and in February, we planted lettuce. In 2013, we had not done any indoor planting until the end of March.

Oh, and we’ve already started eating lettuce, which had only just been planted in May of last year.

Where we have truly lagged, though, is in our outdoor plantings. Our goal had been St. Patrick’s Day; we settled for mid-April. The combination of lingering snow, travelling and (to be honest) procrastination pushed the peas, carrots, radishes, turnips and beets a month later than we would have preferred. Additional travel and additional procrastination (I can’t blame the snow this time) have also affected second plantings, which have yet to occur.

Oddly, though, everything we have planted outdoors looks to be as far along in growth as earlier plantings were at this time last year (we didn’t meet the St. Patrick’s Day deadline then, either, but had sowed seeds by the end of March). Apparently, the conventional wisdom holds true that plants will grow into their season regardless of the weather.

It’s a reassuring revelation that even if the engine starts cold, it will still get us to our destination on time.

Last week, we dug the holes (see May 4, 2014). This week, we filled them.

Last year, I did a careful estimate of how much soil we would need and meticulously calculated the volume of the (assumed) conical mounds of soil on top. Of course, I was very precisely wrong and underestimated the total by a wide margin.

This year, I eyeballed it.

Well, okay, not completely (that would be contrary to my nature). At the garden center, I figured about four bags of compost per bale of peat moss (at equal proportions) of which I guessed we needed two. I then applied a factor of safety of 1.5 to the compost and got 12 bags.

Back in the garden, I wrestled a bale of peat moss (it is quite heavy and awkward) onto the wheelbarrow and Rachel sifted in a quantity about equal to a bag of compost. Bales of peat moss are very tightly compacted—they are almost rock solid—which made dispensing it even more difficult.

Peat moss is packaged in a bone-dry state, so we sprinkled it with water and gave it a stir. Like a magic trick, the water disappeared after only a few turns. We repeated the process with similar results until finally, after five applications of water, the peat moss looked slightly damp.

At this point, we added a bag of compost and stirred (with our hands) to incorporate. The moisture contained in the compost was sufficient to produce a workable consistency and we dumped the soil into the first hole. There was enough to fill it and to form a mound about six inches high and 18 to 24 inches in diameter.

Five bags and half a bale of peat moss later, we had filled and mounded the remaining holes. We were left with almost as much peat moss as we started with (counting the bale already on hand) so once again, my estimate was way off. I had not taken the peat moss’s compaction into account and as a result we purchased at least twice the necessary quantity. Also, my factor of safety on the compost was completely unnecessary.

It’s no matter; the peat moss and compost will not go to waste. We used some of it to top off and tidy up the mounds from last year which are now ready to be planted again. We can’t do any cucurbits (who inhabited these spaces last year) but perhaps we will try tomatoes (of which we have more than we can fit into the raised beds).

I’ve been neglecting my tomatoes, poor things.

While I potted up the squash and cucumbers almost as soon as they germinated, I’ve left the tomato seedlings in their seed trays for a month since they sprouted. True, the tomatoes are not as big—especially compared to the exuberant summer squashes—but they would benefit from a move into larger pots. There is not much room in the seed tray compartments for an expansive root system.

After taking care of the tomatoes, I moved on to the last of this year’s indoor sowing. We are determined to have a second color of bell pepper and picked up seeds for a yellow variety: Yellow Belle. With a name like that, I’m expecting demure flowers and beautiful fruit (with, perhaps, assertive flavor).

While at the garden center, we also purchased seeds for Early Fortune cucumbers, whose name implies bounty and punctuality (but whose number of days to maturity is larger than our previous varieties), and Tricolor Pattypan squash, whose name is, well, self-explanatory. I’m looking forward to growing these because it is my favorite type (and shape) of summer squash.

The producer of the squash seeds—Renee’s Seeds—thoughtfully color-coded them to differentiate the fruit that the plants will produce. Most of the seeds are buff; others have been tinted with red or green dye in shades reminiscent of the Italian flag. Based on the drawing on the seed packet, the squash will be either green, yellow, or white so the mapping is not immediately apparent.

Presumably, buff seeds will produce white squash, green seeds will lead to green squash, and (by process of elimination) red seeds will beget yellow squash. I planted two of each and will keep track of which ones ultimately bear fruit. That will be the only way to know for sure.

While preparing a seed tray for the peppers, cucumbers and squash, I was reminded that one must not lose faith. The seed tray was left over from last week’s potting up session (see May 3, 2014) and had been left sitting unwatered and unheated on a shelf of the seed-starting apparatus. Just as I was about to dump out the leftover soil, I noticed that another pickling cucumber seedling had emerged.

Because only one had sprouted previously, I quickly moved the second one into a larger plastic pot. I had given up on the cucumbers but at least one of them had not given up on me. Now was that a lack of faith on my part…or neglect?

My second least favorite garden activity: Digging holes in our rocky, clayey soil. (Long-time readers of this blog know what my least favorite garden activity is; new readers can look at January 7, 2012 for a clue.) Unpleasant as it is, I have to face up to it if I want to be ready in time to plant summer squash and cucumbers over the Memorial Day weekend. More specifically, I need to start digging if I want to plant them in a different place from last year.

And I do want to plant them in a different place. Most gardening experts advise rotating crop locations every year. Moving vegetables in the same family around the garden helps protect them from insects and diseases that can hunker down in the winter and lie in wait for the new season’s plantings. Given our problems with cucumber beetles, aphids, bacterial wilt and powdery mildew, it is worth the effort.

Many sources advise a four-year rotation. Because crop rotation also helps balance demands on the soil (heavy feeders one year, light feeders the next), the suggested schedule sometimes includes a season of so-called green manure (peas, buckwheat, winter rye, alfalfa) to replenish nutrients or a cover crop to stifle weeds. I love the concept even if we cannot afford to lose any planter space to vegetables we do not plan to eat.

Any separation of the rotating groups is beneficial but to be maximally effective, there should be as much distance as possible between the individual planting areas. I’ve seen recommendations of up to a quarter-mile. That sounds good for large-scale growers but a quarter of a mile from my garden is practically in the next county. We’re very limited by the space available to us.

So we do the best we can. We have two raised planters and each year we alternate what goes into them. Last year, we planted cucumbers behind the west planter; this year, we will move the cukes to a similar location behind the east planter. And after laying out a dozen mounds for squash, we only dug and planted half of them last year, in a staggered arrangement. This time around, we’ll plant the other six. The separation is not huge but it’s not zero, either.

Which leads me back to the digging. It’s not my favorite activity but when it is done, the garden will be in a better state (and I shouldn’t have to do it again next year).

More snow yesterday—a lot more snow—means that it is still too early to be thinking about starting any work on the garden outside.  At this rate of snowstorms, we won’t be digging out until March.

That is just as well because there are still a few items from last year to recap.  Most notably, there are the results of the soil testing that arrived at the end of October (2013) but which I have not had a chance to discuss.

Based on the previous year’s testing, I was not expecting any startling new information for the east and west planters (see October 19, 2013, part 2).  Sure enough, the reports confirmed my expectations.  The all-important pH of the soil remains within the sweet spot (6.20 to 6.80) for vegetable gardens with the east planter at 6.57 and the west planter a tad more acidic at 6.23.

Interestingly, the soil pH of the east planter increased slightly (from 6.31 in 2012) while the soil pH of the west planter decreased (it was 6.78 in 2012).  The soil in the east planter is now squarely within the preferred range but the soil in the west planter is bouncing from endpoint to endpoint.  Both are perfectly fine, however, and we will not have to make pH adjustment to either.

Similarly, the macro- (Ca, K, Mg and P) and micronutrient (B, Cu, Fe, Mn and Zn) concentrations in the east and west planters are close to each other, a result, I think, of at least three factors.  First, we treat the planters identically; neither has received any amendments (other than a top dressing of compost at the beginning of the season) or more fertilizer than the other.

Second, we have been rotating crops back and forth between the planters.  Therefore, their soils have been depleted (or replenished) by more or less the same amount.  Third, the age of the soil in each planter is more than two years.  I assume that given their consistent treatment, both soils are converging on the same steady state.

For the most part, the micronutrient levels in the west planter decreased when compared to last year (i.e., 2012).  This is not too surprising, again considering that we don’t heavily fertilize or otherwise modify our soil during the growing season (I think of it as time smoothing the soil’s rough edges).  Micronutrient levels in the east planter are mostly the same as 2012 (its soil is older and smoother).

What I didn’t expect is that in both planters, the concentration of Calcium increased by almost 50 percent.  We did not add lime, bone meal or any other source of the micronutrient so I have no idea from where the additional Calcium comes.

So much for the well-established planters.  On to the ground level soil, where we planted squash and cucumbers last season.

For starters, the pH of this soil is too high at 7.10 (the soil is slightly alkaline).  We’ve learned from both of the growing seasons prior to last that this can have a very detrimental effect on plant performance.  And I learned from this year’s experiments with seed starting mix that the culprit is probably not the very acidic peat moss, of which the ground level soil is roughly half.  The other half is compost (mainly cow manure) which tends to be more alkaline.

When we dig new pits for the squash and cucumbers this year, we will have to increase the proportion of peat moss to manure and perhaps add some elemental Sulfur to bring the pH down.  Otherwise, the ground soil profile resembles that of the planters.  The macro- and micronutrient concentrations are very close, including—somewhat mysteriously—the high concentration of Calcium.

This is a bit ironic because the summer squash plants experienced a high rate of blossom end rot last season, a condition that is usually associated with Calcium deficiency.  I think this is what the testing lab was alluding to when they called me in the fall (see October 24, 2013).  The testing methods based on acid extraction indicate a high concentration of Calcium but it is not, apparently, in a form that plants can readily use.  I’ll have to look into this one further.

The reports list lots of numbers, not all of them obviously meaningful.  So, what does it all mean?  The bottom line is that our planters’ soil is doing fine and that with minor modification the soil in the ground will come into line as well.  That’s good—if not exciting—news.

At breakfast last Saturday morning (pancakes and eggs at our favorite local joint), we started in on early planning for this year’s garden.  The first thing we concluded is that we are not really early.  By some reckonings, we should have sowed seeds for thyme last month and could be starting other herbs right now.  The second thing we concluded is that, once again, we are behind schedule.

Luckily, the choices of what to plant this year were relatively easy decisions even though a fair amount of thought went into each one.  We started with the list of plants we grew last year and then applied a few different criteria to assess their success.

The most important criterion for each vegetable is our answer to the question, did we like it?  It doesn’t matter how well it grew or how much it produced if, at the end of the day, we won’t eat it.  Of last year’s crops—those that actually yielded fruit—the only one that did not absolutely thrill us was the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes.  They were not bad, per se, but they didn’t leave us wanting for more.  Consequently, we will not grow them again this year.

There was one plant whose fruit we could not taste.  The Delicata winter squash did set fruit—several of them—but was not able to develop any of them to maturity.  And that leads to the next criterion, performance.  Plants that did not thrive last year may not be suited to our particular microclimate.  Then again, we may not have given them what they needed, either.

So, what besides the Delicata did not perform?  Well, the Kabocha winter squash produced only one specimen by the end of the year and it was a small one at that.  That’s two strikes against the winter squashes and based on this meager showing, I was tempted to say that we should try other varieties this year or skip them altogether.

However, roasted with a little olive oil and salt, the Kabocha squash was absolutely delicious.  It passed the first criteria with flying colors even though it showed weakly on the second.  Similarly, although we were not able to sample the produce of our Delicata, it is one of my favorite varieties (we often buy it at the farmers’ market).  Therefore, we will try the Delicata and Kabocha squashes again.

The next criterion then is, why did these vegetables underperform?  My best guess is that we underfed them.  I haven’t reported on last year’s testing yet (look for a future posting) but soil properties are a definite suspect.  The areas we planted with the squash were newly formed last year and have not had much chance to stabilize.  This spring, we will probably need to enrich their soil and fertilize them more frequently.

The same could be true of the summer squashes—both the yellow crookneck and pale green zucchini—and the cucumbers—one a pickling variant and the other a slicing type—all of which we planted in more or less the same area (the ground surrounding the planters) and with roughly the same soil (equal parts of compost and peat moss).

Despite these similarities, however, their performance was quite different.  Three of the four summer squash vines were hugely productive (especially the alpha crookneck; see August 6, 2013) whereas the cucumbers produced only a modest quantity of fruit before fading away in mid-summer.  Two other factors could account for the differences.

First, the amount of soil we introduced for the cucumbers was much, much less than for the squashes.  This is partly because of their location between the pool fence and planters but mostly because the cucumbers were the last seedlings we planted.  By that time, we were tired!  Our native soil is rocky and very difficult to dig but we will have to face up to doing more of it this year.  Adding to and amending the soil will be an early spring chore.

Second, the cucumbers were stricken hard by powdery mildew and once afflicted, perished rapidly.  It is not clear (and probably never will be) whether this was due to their undernourished state or simply because the varieties we planted are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew.  The squashes, on the other hand, seem better able to continue to produce after contracting the disease.  Each of the squash vines was still setting fruit into the fall.

Both of these are factors we can mitigate—or try to mitigate, anyway—and so we will plant both types of summer squash and both types of cucumbers again.  To help control the powdery mildew (which is endemic in the northeast), we will plant in new locations.  I will also arm myself with a spray bottle full of baking soda solution which I will apply early and often.  With diligence—and luck—we will have more squash and cucumbers than we can eat this year.

It’s that time of year again (past time, actually):  Time to send the soil out for testing.

Why is it that time?  Because the growing season is over and the soil is as depleted as it will get this year.  Now is the time to add supplements or nutrients that the soil may need before the new season starts in spring.  And I won’t know what to add without an assessment of what is—or is not—there.  Also, the planters are (almost) bare so it is convenient to take samples.

Testing is becoming less critical for the east planter, which has just completed its third year of service.  Its soil needed adjustment after the first year (to increase its acidity) but received no amendments last year.  We did add a small amount of compost (to bring the soil surface higher) and may do so again this year.  Otherwise, I don’t expect that the soil’s properties have changed much.

Similarly, the soil in the west planter was nearly on the mark in terms of pH and nutrient concentrations, as evidenced by its first soil testing last year (see October 4, 2012).  It received the same treatment as the east planter (a minor infusion of compost) and in conjunction with the solid performance of this year’s crops, is unlikely to need any modifications.

The condition of the newest soil in the garden, the mounds where we planted the squashes and cucumbers, is another matter entirely.  We were not particularly careful in designing this soil and simply mixed together roughly equal parts of compost and peat moss.  It looked right and was good enough but apparently only just so.  While the summer squashes performed adequately (especially the yellow crookneck), the winter squashes and cucumbers did poorly (in fact, only one Kabocha and none of the Delicata squashes reached maturity).

Clearly, there is something missing from (or otherwise not quite right with) this soil.  Testing should help uncover what that is.

As in previous years, for each of the planters and the mounds, I dug soil from four locations, mixed it together and dumped it into a labeled zip-top bag.  I slipped each baggie into a larger one (to contain possible spillage) and packed the three sacks into a box for shipping.  To the box I added the testing lab’s forms (one for each sample) and a check to cover expenses.

Next week, I’ll send them to New Jersey and in another week to 10 days, we should have the results.